The Kid Doesn’t Wanna…

Youngest and I went on a recent hike with a group on a cold mid-November morning, meeting the others in a local parking lot.  When I arrived, one of the kid hikers – in upper elementary school – stood in the parking lot next to his parent’s van wearing nylon gym shorts, a t-shirt and thin cotton windbreaker.  The parents weren’t going along with the boy, who would be with a group of us.  When I walked over and said hello, he commenced yakking with Youngest and I quietly asked his parent whether that attire would really be sufficient for a long hike in chilly temperatures; the forecast called for gusty winds and as it turned out, brief snow flurries.  The adult looked at me and stated that that’s what he always wore in cold weather, he didn’t wanna wear long pants and heavier clothing so that’s what he was going in. 

The kid didn’t wanna.  Seriously?  Seriously?  I mean, seriously? 

Since I was the guy who planned this hike of almost ten miles, it was up to me to decide whether or not I’d make an issue of it.  I commented that the boy was liable to become cold and the guy stated that that’s what the boy always wore and that he’d be alright.  My verbal response was okay but the mental response was far more prolific.  I grew up in a “highway household” in which the parental mantra was my way or the highway and I’d frankly fought this particular battle in my household on innumerable occasions until the older kids reached an age that they’d learned to suffer well from their choices.  My own personal decision was that the boy was going to have to suffer from his choice and parent’s unwillingness to press the issue.  When we reached a later point in the hike in which the wind was blowing across the open fields and the boy was visibly shivering, my only response was to suggest that he zip up the windbreaker and hustle a little faster.  I wasn’t about to play the dutiful parent and offer my own fleece jacket to keep him warm;  in my mind, my obligation was to bring the kid back alive and unharmed and if he’d been attacked by wild dogs, I’d protect him.  But I was damned if I – or anyone else – was going to suffer for his own parent’s unwillingness to be the adult for his own kid. 

The reality is that parenting can be unpleasant – damnably so – at times.  Kids naturally push the boundaries as they grow and try to assert their independence and judgment and it can occasionally require Solomon’s wisdom to ascertain when they’re alright in doing so and when they need to toe your line;  there have frankly been any number of instances when my own choice led to unnecessary frustration on the part of both sides and I can look back and say woulda, shoulda.  What bothered me now was that the kid was going to be out of the parent’s presence and any issues would have to be handled by me or another parent. If I’m going to have an Opie along – and that’s pretty often – then I don’t want to be in the position of having to pick up for the other parent’s unwillingness to be the adult.  When my kids are in someone else’s care, there’s an expectation that the other parent will be responsible for them but that doesn’t extend to even meeting their minimal needs simply because I don’t want to deal with any unpleasantries. 

If there’s ever a time to deal with the tantrums and rancor, it’s when they’re youngest.  As they grow, they’ll learn that while they push the boundaries and learn to actually argue with you on a more mature level – Dad, this is why I think that I should be allowed to wear pants like these… – they’ll also become used to the notion that you’re actually the parent with a final say. 

I owe my children my adulthood.  This means that I’ll have to wrestle with the unpleasant moments because it’s ultimately in their own best interests that I do so.  They don’t have the experience or the judgment to determine when something is ultimately harmful in the long run, such as wearing inappropriate clothing for the weather.  But thinking of them is only part of the equation since there’s also a duty to the other parents who have to deal with my child in my absence and I owe them what I in turn would want for myself when managing their kids in their absence.  It creates discord in their own household as their kids naturally point at the Opies and throw their own behavior back in the parents’ faces, and the folks in turn are forced to not only try to explain their own rationale, but explain the reasoning of those other parents.  The simple truth is that I’ve actually explained the behavior of other parents by remarking they let it occur just because they’re idiots, son.

If your own kid doesn’t wanna, please be sure that he’s old enough to live with the results of his choices.nbsp; If he isn’t old enough, make sure that you’re around to contend with him because he’s liable to not like my own response to the consequences of his (in)actions and kvetching. 

(S)Crapbooking

In the past, the mother has historically been the parent who looks inward to the family while the father has looked outwards.  It’s been Mom who’s taken the lead in taking the household and turning it into what the family comes to call home, but that’s changing as more fathers return home.  I frankly thought that I’d taken on pretty much everything that mothers have until several weeks ago when a project that required a number of family photos through the years raised it’s head, and my only thought was oh crap

Multiple projects through the years – science fairs and scouts for example – have led me to craft stores and I’ve always walked past the scrapbooking section with a cursory glance.  Yeah, my thinking went, that’s just lovely but it’s something that mebbe I’ll worry about later.  Unfortunately, there was a parental project for graduating high school seniors and the need for the photos made me realize that later is now.  The result was a scramble through boxes of old photos and the wholesale reloading of camera cards onto my laptop in a search for meaningful and good photos of Eldest through the years.  As the project continued, it became apparent that we also had rolls of old 35 mm film in multiple drawers and while it was too late to use them – meaning that Eldest’s ‘tween years are missing from the project – the first of them were dispatched to a local camera store for developing.

My wife originally had a plan for all of these photos and started more than 15 years ago to try to create a photographic history of the kids’ lives with the intent of giving each a significant album when they reached adulthood.  It was a wonderful thought and she kept at it for the first three years of Eldest’s life but the arrival of Middle – let alone Youngest – to the family meant that the project was relegated to the various drawers throughout the basement.  To be honest, it was something that I found cute but not terribly important as the kids grew and activities took over but now I’ve come to realize that the albums truly do have significance for them.  Eldest knows about the project and was annoyed to find that I refused to show her; other parents have commented that the projects that are being done for their own kids are among the highlights of that particular evening for them. 

It’s now apparent that I badly underestimated the value of the albums and memorykeepers.  The kids want, especially as they move into the world, to have a sense of who they are and where they’re from and making the effort to provide something can only be of benefit to them.  While I believe that men can do most of what women can in the home, I doubt that most of us have the female sense of taste and that’s certainly true in my own situation.  However, I’ll make what was once referred to as a rum go of it in the attempt to provide a scrapbook that isn’t a (s)crapbook.

 

The Band, Elwood, The Band

 

The band, Elwood, the band!

                  – Jake Blues, the Blues Brothers

Children are not little adults, but as they become adults, they’ll find their own interests and tastes.  If my job is to support them – whether financially, logistically, emotionally and morally – then that means that I’m going to become familiar with topics and activities with which I’m familiar.  We fathers will be forced outside of our comfort zones as fathers who played baseball purchase The Idiot’s Guide to Soccer and hunters become conversant with music and theatre.  In my own case, Middle’s sudden entry into the world of garage bands means that I’m so far out of my own zone that I need a compass and Sherpa guide to find my way back.  What are some things that I’ve had to learn in this situation?

The first thing that I’ve had to realize is that a garage band involves not only the household, it involves the entire neighborhood.  Even with the garage door down, amps and speakers are loud enough that the sound is only muted as it rolls down the street.  Even at the outset, when we imposed curfews on practice times to spare neighbors with small children, the comments were such that we moved the band into the basement.  I was surprised that the boys actually listened as the situation developed and while the location is less than perfect for them, they’re just happy to have a regular place to practice.

What can be done to minimize the damage to the ears of practicing in an enclosed area?  Early rock-and-rollers are notoriously deaf and it’s our desire to see that this doesn’t happen here, so finding earplugs are a necessity; stressing that they be worn – which Middle hasn’t opposed thankfully – is also incumbent.  Fortunately, I haven’t had to threaten to interrupt practice to perform ear inspections to assure that they’re being worn.

What is the language being used?  Lyrics can be famously profane and it’s been made clear from one infraction that cursing won’t be allowed.  I’m fortunate in that their preference is punk and not "screamo", in which case I couldn’t tell the difference between the Catholic liturgy and a string of Howard Stern’s rants; to date, there’s only been one instance of having to say something for inappropriate language. 

How are the logistics being handled, especially in terms of moving equipment?  None of these kids have licenses and if there are gigs – and there are two already lined up – then the odds are that one or more of the fathers are going to add roadie to our job responsibilities.  Even if the equipment isn’t being moved, then how are kids getting home and are any of them staying for dinner?  Teens are notoriously horrendous planners and it’s reached the point that if I know that there’s going to be a practice, then I’m simply cooking for the band as well as the family.  These are the days that work best for crockpot meals.

When the kids "plan" these sessions, are they on days when there’s a certifiable adult in the household?  We’ve been adamant that either my wife or I be present and when Middle protested vigorously, quoting the teen battle cry of what could go wrong? I responded that with the presence of several teenage boys, I could return home to find a smoking crater where our house used to be.

These are only the first of the lessons that will arise from this new endeavor.  As one father commented to me last weekend, wait until they start bickering.

 

 

 

Friend Time vs. Family Time

Although there are still younger ones in the house, Eldest is now officially in the last semester of her senior year in high school.  In the moment of raising kids, it didn’t seem as though it would end but in retrospect, it’s gone quickly.  And it’s now that I fully understand what other friends have said through the years:  I think that he’s gonna stay home tonight since he’s leaving in only a few months.  The difference is an intellectual understanding versus the visceral comprehension that you feel in your gut.  With the knowledge that your child wants to spend time with the friends but is still leaving the roost soon, how do you balance out the competing interests so that the kid gets to do what she wants while you still get to spend some meaningful time before that final departure?

Most teens are at the height of egocentrism.  While they can participate in all manner of group activities and volunteer heavily, their world still revolves around themselves and there’s an understanding that when they leave high school, that world is going to change dramatically.  These bonds and friendships that have formed over the socially intense teen years will forever change as they go off to college, join the armed forces or – hopefully – get a job.  Couple that with their passion and sense of invulnerability and the world’s their oyster.  Until this passage into the birth of legal adulthood, they will want to play.  

Friend time versus family time is a question with which we wrestle here.  Different parents will have different takes and levels of acceptance and my own varies as well.  But when your high school senior comes to ask whether she can spend half of the day tomorrow with some buddies, what might you consider?

  • Are there actually any family activities planned?   She is still a member of the family and there are still others living within it, others who appreciate her presence at concerts, shows or games.  While she might look upon it as a journey into Dante’s Purgatory, spending time can help remind her that there are others who still enjoy her presence.  Likewise, these can help reinforce that there are certain family values that are likely not going to be emulated amongst her peers.
  • What else is going on within the schedule?  Many teens are still getting a handle on time management and if they’re not used to keeping a calendar, then they’re liable to be missing something; even if I don’t know exactly what her schedule is, I can still ask her what’s happening with things like school subjects, work, status of chores and tasks to prompt her memory. 
  • How often has she been around recently?  If she’s not been to a family meal in a period of time, then it’s reasonable to expect her presence to check in on things with her parents and siblings. 
  • If there are younger siblings, do they seem to miss her? 
  • Likewise, what standards do you think are being set for the younger siblings as they age?  If they perceive that the elder sibling is constantly gone, they’re going to expect the same treatment.  The problem with the younger one is that they’ll expect it at a younger age since they don’t have a great grasp on time.  Senior sibling is going to a local concert and not home until 11 PM?  They’ll remember the concert and curfew time, but they won’t recall that she was a senior at that time.
  • Naturally, what are the details – who, what, when, where, how – and what’s the track record?  She’s still a minor and if something goes wrong, you’ll get the phone call, so you can certainly put the kabosh on something even if it’s going to be unpleasant in the household for awhile.
  • It’s not selfish to say no if there’s something that you’d like to do with her.  If she’s simply going to be stuck in the house while you do whatever you do with no attention paid to her, then you might as well let her go.  But if there’s something that you’d like to do, then you’ve got a right to your time with her

There are no simple answers and what one father finds acceptable might be another’s anathema.  Parenting teens is sometimes an inexact science, but it’s helpful to have a sense of what some of the considerations are when she’s standing next to your chair with phone in hand and a question on her lips.

“Do I Hafta?”  Taking Kids Along

One of the common questions for parents with kids is do I hafta?, particularly regarding going along to another sibling’s event or activity.  The answer is a no-brainer when the child is too young to be home alone but when they can be left alone for a short period, or longer, but then it does take greater thought.  When can, and should, kids be allowed to stay home alone instead of tagging along for the sibling’s activity?

Most kids are egocentric and this ramps up to a roaring crescendo in their early to mid teens.  If their sibling has something going on, the chronic refrain is the plaintive do I hafta?  It can be irritating since the question is repetitive and when there are more than one child involved, the decision may lead to discord as the budding jailhouse lawyers pick the answer apart.  She didn’t have to go, why do I?  But he got to stay home and I have to go?  Where’s the justice?  (Seriously, one of my kids lofted that comment and I simply laughed aloud in the child’s face).  What are some considerations on whether the child stays or goes?

  • How long can the child reasonably be home alone?  Kids don’t mature at the same rate and some elementary schoolers could be home while you run older sibling to a practice. 
  • Is there the possibility of intervening stops?  With cellphones, the prospect of plan changes rises as you’re called with a request to stop somewhere and pick something up.  How far out of the way does that take you and can the child manage that (with a phone call letting him know)?  There have been instances when I’ve refused the request because it didn’t seem right to leave the child home any longer than was already the case.
  • Is the sibling’s activity a practice or an actual event, such as a game or a concert?  If there’s only a practice, then the questions are whether you need to stay for the practice and it’s duration.  If it’s just a drop-off, then perhaps the other can stay home but if it’s far enough away that it’s better to just stay, then toting the sibling makes more sense.  Our school district is geographically large and rec league soccer practices could be far enough away that it was impractical and expensive to come home and on those instances, I made it a point of bringing the others along and they could bring their books or games.  If it’s an actual game or concert, then only a sibling’s competing activity or schoolwork could keep the child home and in those instances of schoolwork, it’s been understood that we’ll check homework or quiz.
  • Do you actually trust the kid to be home, either alone or with siblings?  If you don’t, then you can anticipate considerable blowback but the risk of something bad occurring outweighs that.  Some years ago, an acquaintance related that she went to the grocery store, figuring that she’d be gone only for an hour and that her ‘tweener son could be alone with her teen daughter and friend.  She returned home to find the boy handcuffed to a chair with his hair full of bows.  He’d cuffed himself to the chair, not knowing that there was no key, and sister and friend decided to take the opportunity to do his hair for him.  As she stated at the time, so I won’t be leaving him home alone with her for awhile.
  • This leads to the next question,are any of their peers going to be there?  Stupidity is contagious and the ability of ‘tweeners and teens to assess risk ranks up there with the ability of Lindsay Lohan to make a community service date.  It’s a very short list of kids with which I’m comfortable being at the house unmonitored.

So what do I say when the kids, of whatever age, find that they’re coming along to sibling’s game?  The language that we’ve used is that this is simply something that family does for one another, a visual way to show that we support each other in our chosen activities.  While I can say that other parents say the same, it’s nice to find out that the kids talk with one another and find that the other parents really are saying the same thing as Middle noted during a chat with an acquaintance at school.  Yeah, my folks say that I’ve got to go my brother’s ballgame because that’s what a family does for one another.  A tack that I’ve taken with the older kids is this:  While a good part of your life was spent without Youngest in the picture, you’ve always been a part of his life and he’s never known life without you.  You’ll be going off to college – or wherever – and you simply won’t be around to see all of the cool things that he’s probably going to do as he grows, and while he’s always been there for you, you won’t be there for him.  This is a comment that I’ve only had to make once or twice and with each of the older kids and each time, it was met with a quiet look as each assessed its validity and acknowledged its truth.  It might not work with all kids, but I was gratified that neither Eldest nor Middle scoffed and derided it.

Like other parts of parenting, it can be frustrating to listen to the backtalk and griping.  But this is how the kids are learning that a family is more than just an accumulation of biologically related bodies within a household.

 

Kids and Pets:  What to Consider

The lives of families are usually intertwined with animals.  It might be because the young couple got an animal after settling down or simply because the kids want one.  With the PracticalDad household now the residence of yet another cat and a purchased-but-not-yet-brought-home snake, the questions remain, what are the issues regarding pets and when is it too much?

What to consider with kids and pets

The first and simplest question is, can your family actually handle having a pet?  All parents talk with the kids, once they’re a little older, about their need to take some responsibility in caring for the animals.  Preschoolers can certainly be taught to parcel out the dog and cat food, or sprinkle a little bit into the fishtank, but the reality is that actually remembering to do it is going to probably devolve upon the parent.  The corollary to this is that if the kids are already involved in some other activity and the animal needs to be fed, then consider how you’ll react when you’re reminder is met with either inaction – requiring another, more pointed reminder – or the roll of the eyes.  If your schedule is full enough that a small activity such as even feeding, let alone walking and fecal duties, creates a mood-altering imposition, then reconsider it again.

Will the pet continue to stay small and cute, or is it going to grow into some else entirely?  Kittens and puppies are cute enough for many that it makes up for the actual work that’s involved with very young animals.  But these grow up to be adult animals with their own personalities and quirks and the ongoing care will no longer be outweighed by the cuteness factor.

Does the animal even make sense?  About a year ago, Eldest showed up at the backdoor with a friend that she wanted me to meet – that’s a danger signal by itself – and the box that the friend had brought along.  After the introduction, during which my eyes periodically wandered to the magic wonder box, she divulged that the inhabitant was a duckling for whom her friend was trying to find a home.  Why?  Because her friend had thought that a duck would be a wonderful addition to the family and her own father had laid it at her doorstep.  Not only are we not taking in a damned duckling, but you’re going to find it a decent home.  We were probably the fourth stop on the duckling’s home adoption tour and when the girls couldn’t even identify what it would do in the coming wintertime – I think that it’ll head south… – her mother and I agreed to foster the duckling until we found a decent farm on which it could live.  Dogs and cats make sense, even hamsters and snakes, but to consider taking in a duck solely because we have a small fishpond is lunacy.

What’s the cost of the animal?  Well cared for animals typically have their own particular foods and diets and that’s a cost.  Cats additionally require litter and when you factor in the vet bills, having pets can be expensive.  Wander through the local humane league and you’ll probably find any number of sad animals who’ve been given up their owners because they couldn’t handle the cost.

When is it too much?

Apart from clear factors such as cost and sheer generated workload, this is a highly subjective question.  In our household, the kids who want to bring in additional pets had better be able to answer certain questions and get their information straight for the verbal quiz.  While Eldest campaigned for years for a reptile or snake, she could never quite get the information straight and her answers led to other questions.  So this thing doesn’t eat mice, but just crickets?  Do they have to be alive or dead crickets and must I concerned about crickets escaping into the house?  What about the noise that these crickets are going to make through the night?  Youngest however, was watching this and through the years, prepared himself so that when we talked about it, he was clear on what was involved in caring for a reptile or snake.  For his part, he’s willing to feed it a mouse each week and is very clear that the day that I have to stun a live mouse and feed the snake is probably the snake’s last day in this household.

The upshot is that he purchased a snake with his own money this weekend and we covered the habitat for his Christmas.  When we assembled the various parts of the habitat last night, he didn’t grumble when I made him read the instructions aloud to me and he even commented that this item or that was something he didn’t realize.

The other aspect to whether it’s too much is the question of time.  Eldest still campaigns for yet another pet in her room but we’ve told her no since with less than a year until college, she wouldn’t be around to care for whatever it was she wanted and the uncertainty as to college dorm regulations made it impracticable.  It’s one thing to take in a family pet with run of the household, but another entirely to take in a creature which has appeal to only one person, who’s only there for a certain time longer.

So as it stands now, we’re up to one dog, four cats and in the next day, a corn snake.  That’s enough for me.

 

 

Object Lessons

Keep talking, they’re listening is a constant refrain in my head with my kids, even if the eyes roll and the response is an exasperated FINE!  But that only goes so far and even if they’re listening, they might simply choose to ignore it.  In that case, when should I stop simply saying anything at all?  Is there value in the object lesson and is the potential severity of an incident such that there’s benefit in there’s actually greater value in an object lesson learned?

Parenting is partially a job in assessing risk – what can go wrong and just how bad can it be – and reacting to it accordingly.  In the child’s early years, the great majority do everything possible to protect our kids.  There’s an entire industry built around safety devices and we buy into it accordingly.  As a former claims adjuster, I remember the times when Eldest was napping in her crib and I dropped to hands and knees to survey the world from the baby’s level, asking myself what are the hazards here?  At those ages, the child simply doesn’t recognize what can hurt her and it’s my job to protect her.  But as she grows, she begins to understand and put things together and can actually modify her actions to Dad’s instructions and that’s where the fun starts.  If I take her to the park and she persists in doing something stupid, at what point do I simply decide to let her have an object lesson?  What could go wrong and how bad could the likely results be?  There are no clear answers and what one father perceives can be very different from another father.

The nature of the situation changes as the kids age and grow, but it continues to exist.  By a certain point, you can’t protect them from their own stupidity all of the time because you’re simply not around and you can’t wrap them in a bubble, but there are other ways to teach the object lesson; it now goes more frequently to the concept of self-responsibility.  In my case, it goes to the world of school and the ubiquitous permission form because as I’ve told Middle repeatedly, Dude, these exist for a reason apart from killing trees.  It’s been often enough that deadlines have passed simply because no form was ever delivered and in some cases, never even remembered that forms were even handed out; the resulting angst as we scramble to keep situations under control creating sufficient uproar that it becomes apparent that jawboning simply won’t work. 

Hence the object lessons.  The beauty of the internet is that we can surveille what’s happening via the school district website and see what’s on the horizon and that was the case several months ago as the word went out Remember to have your forms in by April 1 in order to attend the end-of-year field trip to the Amusement Park!  Given the repeated situations, the decision was to sit on it and sure enough, the form wasn’t turned in and Middle missed the field trip.  However, since his option was to then sit in a classroom for an all-day study hall, I kept him home and he did significant yardwork.  We thought that the lesson was learned but sure enough, the missed form occurred again last week as a Fall play cast party was thrown in doubt and when I responded to another parent that he probably wouldn’t attend because of a blown form, her response was that it was a harsh lesson.  Since I’d also stated that I suspected that there was a permission slip out there that I’d never followed on, the comment was directed at me. 

Is it harsh?  Probably so since the kid truly did an outstanding job with the show.  But I, like many parents, tire of the constant picking that occurs because the kids can’t or won’t step up to the plate on issues of responsibility and when the opportunity to let the system teach a lesson, I’m going to grab it with both hands and ride it for all that it’s worth.  The kids will learn that a favored activity isn’t going to happen not because Dad didn’t make it happen, but because they didn’t make it happen.

As it went, Middle did make the cast party since he found out that the form was due at the door and had it to me that morning before the final show.  Frankly, they were nicer than I’d have been.

First Hand Look at the Tiger Mother

There are stereotypes borne of reality and one of these is of the chinese mother, as popularly memorialized by Amy Chua in her 2011 bestseller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  It’s one thing to read it but another thing entirely to get a first-hand insight into the thinking of the Tiger Mother; it was something that I received the other week when I gave a lift to the Tiger Mother’s daughter and she, my daughter and I had an illuminating conversation.

In Chua’s book, she decides to raise her two Chinese-American/Jewish daughters in the Chinese manner.  The child is given real opportunities but the quid pro quo is that the child is expected to perform and do so in exemplary fashion.  Practicing for violin lessons during vacation?  Check.  Repeated drilling of lessons?  Check.  While I consider my wife and I to be fairly hardnosed about expectations of children, I couldn’t conceive of demanding such from my own kids.  My own general guidelines of the kids are to do your best, respect your teachers and coaches, and don’t ever waste my time.  Don’t want to practice for the music lessons that you requested?  Fine, learn to play the damned thing on your own.  In an earlier article, my thought was that this general attitude arose from living in an unstable society where there few opportunities and those only went to those who were the absolute best.  China has had longer periods of economic and political instability longer than this country has been a republic and if parents want the best for their children, they’ll provide it by pushing the kids to be able to survive in that society.

In this particular conversation, Tiger Mother’s Daughter – hereafter referred to as TMD – was asking about health insurance and pension plans; bear in mind that this is a 17 year-old.  When she mentioned pension plans, my mental response was akin to bwahahahahahahahahahaha*snort* but I answered her in a matter-of-fact way.  Honestly, very few companies still offer pension plans anymore.  If people want to retire, then they’ll have to save it for themselves in some plan such as an IRA or 401k and I wouldn’t hold your breath trying to find that kind of company anymore.  Ironically, I thought, those few who do still have pension plans can probably offer them to the administrative staff since they’ve outsourced all of the labor to China.  Her plans involved some form of engineering, perhaps for the military, since her SAT math scores were higher than I can count and I confirmed that yes, the military did offer a pension for years of service.  The flip side is that our spending is so out of whack that the military is probably going to take some real budget hits, so you have to be aware of that.  To her credit, her own thinking was that she could go the business school route and there’s where I responded with a Ding*Ding*Ding inflection in my voice.  With your abilities, grades and language skills, yeah, you’d be snapped up.

It was in this conversation that I could hear the mother’s fears and motivations come through.  They were immigrants and while that’s tough for everyone, she was shielding her daughter from the true unpleasantries that come with parenting and adulthood in such a situation.  I could discern her thinking please, I don’t want her to hate the surroundings in which she might have to raise her own child; I don’t want her to wonder about where the food’s going to come from; I want my grandchild to have better than I could give you, my love.

In terms of family structure and child-rearing, the Chinese are almost in a completely different dimension from the typical American family.  We view them as comical absurdities in their demands of their kids and the responses when the kids do stupid things – and boy, kids will do stupid things.  But getting even a tiny glimpse into that world is eye-opening and that’s even for someone who’s already considered by the kids to be pretty hardnosed.  Given what this country has already been through economically and I expect will go through in the near future, I’m appreciating the demands placed a bit more than I did before.

Food, Family, Shift Dining, Vegetarians and Budgets

With college on the horizon for Eldest, followed in intervals by Middle and Youngest, the question is how to cut down on one of our biggest expenditures – food.  It’s a puzzle since it’s one thing to say oh yeah, I’ll cook for the family but it’s another thing completely when the other factors are the chaotic scheduling due to three different kids with activities and the presence of a vegetarian in the household.  It’s now a reality that the traditional family meal is the exception to the rule and it would be easy to just pop a precooked meal, a la Stouffer’s in the oven.  But time truly is money and the cost is truly lessened if it’s cooked.

This will be an ongoing project to cut down on the food spending while still meeting my primary constraints:

  • Creating a decently cooked meal that can be easily heated/reheated for the various kids and spouse who are constrained by schedules;
  • Creating a meal that, while requiring some investment in the initial preparation, won’t take significant reheat times since I’m the one providing much of the transportation;
  • Creating a meal that tries to honor Eldest’s dietary choice of being a vegetarian (actually an ovopescavegetarian since she will eat eggs and fish;
  • Creating a meal that uses fresher and easily obtainable ingredients to cut down on the costs.

And yes, I’m going to walk through the scheduling and thinking as I outline what I’ll be doing regularly.

Today’s situation was work for Eldest, theatre practice for Middle and an undetermined return for Better Half.  The kicker however, is that the following night consists of either work or activities for everybody and on top of that, I’m gone as well so whatever is prepared today has to be easily reheated by various folks at different times before they exit.  Since soup is something that almost always improves in taste with time, the choice was soup.  On the island was a butternut squash and there were plenty of Gala, Honeycrisp and Fuji apples in the garage so a quick review of the internet led to this 12 serving recipe for Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Apples and Bacon.  Yeah, there’s a vegetarian in the house but there are occasions when I’m asking for a little flexibility; our own menu has largely shifted out of chicken and red meat since the dietary change occurred so a little bacon is alright on the rare instance.  Since I was also already cutting up an apple for the soup, I went ahead and sliced extra and threw them into the crockpot to cook on high for several hours.  The complement to the meal would be simply bread with butter.

Given that I already had all of the ingredients in the house, it was an exceptionally inexpensive meal for what’s turning out to be two nights of food. 

 

 

PracticalDad: Lessons Learned from Traveling Overseas

After more than two weeks of traveling throughout Italy and Greece – a long-planned and saved-for trip – we’re back and I’ve tallied some of the practical lessons that I learned from traveling overseas with kids.

  • Learn about the tipping culture in other countries.  We’re used to American wait staff working for pittance wages and making up the difference in tips and we consequently tip well so that the folks can hopefully make a decent wage.  What we didn’t learn until the third day in Italy was that European wait staff draws a regular wage and a tip is appreciated for very good service, but not expected, and about 10% is par for very good service.  With the cost of a meal in a decent European restaurant, three Italian waiters made their nut in one fell swoop and they are now lighting votive candles to the patron saint of wait staff in our honor.
  • Even if the kids are a bit older, and our youngest will be entering fourth grade, pay particular attention to where they are since the crowds can be simply overwhelming.  Take proactive measures, such as dressing the kids in identical brightly colored shirts or hats, wearing your own piece of distinctive clothing to stand out in a crowd, assuring that the kids know in what hotel they’re staying so that they can tell police, and having a rally point in the event they realize that they’re separated.  In our case, Youngest was separated three times – and honestly, none were due to his wandering – but in each instance, he used his head and stayed put instead of panicking and wandering.  Thank God that he’s the one with the strong streak of common sense.  Even when the kids are older, you have to maintain some vigilance since teens are insular and many aren’t used to paying attention to what’s occurring around them.
  • If the kids are old enough – and you can afford it – they’ll want their own room to share and that’s honestly a good thing since they will make you nuts.  However, they need to know that the “small sink in the bathroom” is actually called a bidet and isn’t used for washing feet.  Editorial note:  they weren’t my kids, thank God.
  • Even if you’re nervous, take the time to try the local life and that includes riding the local transportation.  Knowing how to figure out the local subway system is a good exercise in reading and deciphering maps, as is finding the local laundromat.  Spend time with the map and then do your best, sharing the mistakes with the kids as they occur.  It takes more time than just doing it yourself, but the kids need to learn and that’s simply a part of being a father.
  • If at all possible, have some ground rules on souvenir spending.  In our case, each kid decided what he or she wanted to spend and if any additional spending was needed after their funds were exhausted, then they could either pass on it or borrow the money and pay it off on the backyard project at $5/hour.  Two of the three kids now owe me hours and one steadfastly refused to spend anything as he’s saving for an electric guitar.  The second part of our souvenir spending is that the kid can buy anything with their own money, but if he has to borrow, then it has to be on something that is endemic to the place; I can always buy a fedora in the US but not something that’s italian or greek made.
  • Be ready for an extended period at breakfast. Young children and preteens will generally awaken earlier than teenagers and if there’s no press, then let the kids make their way down on their own.  That said, I will graze through breakfast like a hobbit, sitting down first with the younger one and then sitting down again for second breakfast at tensies with the teens.  While my own intake is less, it still makes for a pudgy hobbit-like father.

The last lesson for now is that it can take days for a youngster’s body clock to get back into synch.  I started the notes for this article at 4 AM this morning when I awoke and was then joined by Youngest at 615 AM.  It’s now going on 1030 at night and my own case of jet lag is kicking in viciously.  The day has been one of cleaning and unpacking, writing and riding herd on the occasionally cranky youngsters and it’s now time for the hobbit father to turn in for tomorrow’s tensies with the Eldest.